Four centuries ago, at the beginning of the 17th Century, passengers aboard a ship belonging to the East India Company carried a young man who would be the first recorded Indian in Britain. He was soon followed by other Indians associated, directly or indirectly, with the Company, as lascars (seamen), ayahs (nannies) or servants. Rozina Visram charts the history of Indians, and in passing that of other foreign nationalities, in Britain from that period until the end of the Second World War.
It is a history marked by inequality and segregation, prejudice and mistreatment, but also often of endless hard work, creativity and heroism. Sometimes through economic or political necessity or opportunity-seeking, sometimes to gain skills to take home, and sometimes simply for want of seeing the “mother country”, Indians came to Britain, some leaving later in order to apply their skills, knowledge or political ambitions back in India, others staying and integrating as best as they were allowed into their new home.
Moral panics abounded, especially with regard to a fear of white women mixing with non-white men, and there were the usual tales of Indians taking British jobs and selling substandard goods. A reluctance by landlords to rent out lodgings to non-whites meant that what accommodation was available was substandard, and in such short supply that Indians were forced to crowd into squalid slums, upon which effect and cause were confused and this was taken to be the Indian norm: thus are myths created.
But despite this Indians thrived and made positive contributions to their new home. They became a new source for the expanding industrial working class, opened restaurants purveying exotic, novel food, and cared for the health needs of Britons as doctors and nurses, eventually to become a key component of the National Health Service. Without Indians in Britain we may never have had, or would only have had later, meals on wheels, Pelican Books and much of the knowledge we currently have of hypertension. Crucially, India itself also contributed men, women and materiel during two world wars: Visram rounds off her chapter on the Second World War with the story of Noor Inayat Khan, an SOE agent who worked with the French Resistance, and who was captured by the Gestapo, tortured, and eventually taken to Dachau and shot. For her service Khan was posthumously awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French and the George Cross by Britain. Conversely, many of the lascars who perished during both world wars remain unacknowledged by the authorities, and some of those wounded as a result of enemy action found themselves without pay during their convalescence due to their inability to work.
Despite its title, however, the book only really covers 350 years of history, not 400. That’s a shame, as it would have been useful to have seen at least an overview of how the South Asian presence in Britain developed over the 60 years subsequent to the Second World War (the book was published in 2002). Apart from that, though, the only mild irritant I found, and this is purely a matter of personal taste, was Visram’s habit of occasionally posing a series of questions as scene setting for what is to come next. As the questions proliferated I occasionally found myself thinking “I don’t know. Why ask me?”
On the whole though this is a story well told, and a story which deserves to be told not only on its own merits, because it’s interesting and eye-opening, but also to redress the balance of the distorted view some people have of the Asian presence in the UK.